“I’m sorry, miss, but that’s not enough. That’ll only get you to Omaha.”
“But… but it’s all I have.”
“Well, you can buy a ticket to Omaha and walk the rest of the way or you can come back some other time when you’ve got the money to get to Lincoln,” the ticket agent shrugged. Raising his eyebrows he asked, “So, which is it?”
She just stared at him blankly, with no idea what to say.
“She’s a real beauty, Sir.”
“That she is, and as high strung as they come.” The tall, sandy-haired man smiled easily as he gently stroked the graceful, fine-boned horse’s head. She started to snort anxiously as the stable boy stepped closer. He held out a restraining hand. “Careful there!”
The boy quickly stepped back. “Sorry, Sir.”
He watched the older man continue to quiet the horse, then take the leading lines and begin to guide her toward the boxcars of the train. The horse kept snuffling and shaking her head in nervousness.
Following as closely as he dared, the young boy asked in a quietened tone, “What kinda horse is she? I ain’t never seen one what looked like her before. And I seen all kinds a horses come through here.”
“She’s an Arabian, son, all the way from the Ottoman Empire.”
“Wow!” marveled the boy, impressed. “How’d she get all the way out here ta Missourah?”
“I ain’t rightly sure,” the man with the sparkling blue eyes answered. “I--”
His answer was cut off when a porter ran past them, pushing a noisy cart piled high with luggage. One trunk slipped off the cart, landing with a noisy thud on the boardwalk edging up to the train tracks.
The flurry of motion and noise spooked the excitable horse, who reared, whinnying her distress in a trumpeting bugle call that could easily be heard over the sound of the train’s chugging engine. Twisting about, she jerked the reins out of the man’s strong grasp and took off down the boardwalk, seeking escape.
She was so lost in her own misery she missed the clattering of hooves coming up behind her. But the voice chasing after the runaway animal roused her.
“Help! Someone stop that horse! “
She looked up just in time to see the whites of the horse’s eyes as it rounded the corner and nearly smacked into her.
Without thinking, she dropped her bag and instinctively reached out to grab onto the trailing leadlines.
Rather than try to force the horse to a stop, she began to run with it, using the lines to simply guide the horse to a quiet corner in an alley behind the bakery across the street from the train station.
There, she stood still, breathing heavily from the unexpected run. The horse stood facing her, tossing its head in continued agitation, its sides heaving, too.
“Shhhh,” she finally said in a quiet, soothing voice. “It’s alright. No one’s going to hurt you my beauty. You’re safe here.”
Once she was sure she had captured the animal’s attention, she deliberately turned her back on it. The horse’s high forehead and widely spaced eyes indicated it was an intelligent creature and she trusted the mare’s curiosity to get the better of her. So she waited patiently, continuing to talk in the same soft, dulcet tones.
Her efforts were quickly rewarded as the animal pranced daintily up behind her and nosed her neck and head curiously. She laughed quietly when the mare’s slightly whiskery muzzle tickled her and turned to face the beautiful horse.
“You’re a beauty, for sure and for certain,” she whispered, leaning into the creature as it leaned into her, each finding a measure of comfort in the other’s presence.
“Oh, thank God!” came the relieved cry in a breathy baritone. “I was afraid she might’ve run off with ya. Or hurt ya while getting away.”
“No,” the young woman said, turning her head to look toward the newcomer, but not moving from her embrace of the horse. “She just needed some space from all that noise and confusion.”
The man ‘hmphed’ in frustration as he pulled his hat off his head and slapped it against his thigh. “Well, she’s going to have to get used to it. I can’t ride her all the way to Nebraska. Ain’t got that much time.”
“She’ll be alright,” the slender girl-woman smiled. Finally she stepped back, but kept a tight hold on the leadlines. “She just needed a little reassurance, first. That’s all.”
She stepped confidently toward the alley entrance and the busy street and the horse moved eagerly after her, keeping within a hairsbreadth of her new handler. “See, she’s eager to get on with the trip.”
The man shook his head in consternation as he watched the duo disappear around the corner.
“It’s alright,” she said softly, poking her fingers through a crack in the wooden slats of the side of the boxcar. “I’m right here.”
The horse snuffled at her fingers for a moment. Then, contented that all was well, turned to the bucket of oats the man had measured out for her.
“I’ll be hornswaggled,” he muttered. “I only seen one or two people with yer way with horses my whole life. Where’d ya learn how ta handle ‘em here in the city?”
He tossed his head to indicate the busy streets surrounding them.
“I grew up on a farm,” she said simply. “I always loved animals and was always helping out in the stables. I was an only child and my…. Pa… taught me everything he knew about animals.”
“Well, ya sure learned right an’ proper,” he allowed.
“Hey, Miss, ya fergot yer bag!”
She turned to see the excited young stableboy trotting up to her, lugging the small carpet bag stuffed with everything she owned in the world.
“Thank you,” she smiled at the youngster. “Thank you so much! I don’t know what I would have done without this.”
He blushed and ducked his head shyly. “Awww, tweren’t nothin’, Miss.”
“Hey, boy! Get over here and do yer job,” a large man with dark hair and buck teeth yelled toward them. “I ain’t payin’ ya ta moon over some birdie.”
She watched him run back to his boss, father, whatever the big man was, her fists clenching around the handles of her carpetbag until the knuckles turned white. Its return had reminded her of her dilemma.
“Where are ya headed, anyways, Miss?”
“What?” She turned startled eyes toward the tall man she’d forgotten was at her side.
He nodded at the bag in her hands. “Ya were outside the train station, possessions in hand. Seems ta indicate yer goin’ somewhere. Where might that be?”
“I… I don’t know.”
He cocked his head in question.
“I… I was going to Lincoln. I’ve got relatives nearby, or so I’m told. But apparently I don’t have enough money to get there. And I don’t have any idea of what to do to get the money.”
“Can’t you go back to the farm?” he asked. “Surely your parents will help.”
“Uh… no.” She turned her head away, blinking furiously to keep the sudden tears from falling.
He waited a moment for her to explain. When she didn’t, he sighed and continued.
“I have a proposition for you--”
“Just who do you think I am, mister?!” she rounded on him in sudden fury.
He held up a placating hand.
“Not that sort of proposition,” he laughed. His smile crinkled the corners of his mouth and reached all the way up to his eyes. “An honest one. Since we were both wantin’ ta go the same way an’ ya seem ta be the only one that can get the Queen of the East here ta do anythin’ without a fight… I thought I could pay the rest of yer ticket and ya could travel with us. All honest and above board, I promise. My wife’d have my head if it were anythin’ else. “
It was his laugh that swayed her. There was something straightforward and true about it that convinced her he meant what he said. Well, that and the way he’d said the word wife, full of equal parts love, respect and fear.
She followed him onto the train and toward an empty bench at the back of the car. As he took her carpetbag from her and lifted it onto the rack overhead, she reached up to unfasten the ties of her bonnet. She removed the annoying headgear as she slid onto the bench, all the way over to the window to make room for the gentleman.
“What the hell happened to your hair?!”
She reached up and ran an embarrassed hand over the unruly, chopped off curls of barely an inch that rioted in an undisciplined mess all over her head.
“Uh… it’s part of why I can’t go back,” she finally explained without explaining.
Settling onto the bench next to her, he raised an eyebrow demanding more details.
She sighed and continued haltingly. “I left the farm last year. I… became a novitiate at an orphanage run by nuns. Against my family’s wishes. There was no going back.”
“But, you said you were visiting family near Lincoln,” he said, slightly confused.
The train’s whistle, and the increasing chugging of the engine and squealing of the wheels as it began to build up steam for departure made it impossible to hear anything said for a moment and she just nodded.
He waited impatiently for the train to get underway, so they could talk without shouting again. Finally, “Well? If you’ve got family, how come you had to stay?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t know about them, yet.”
He could tell she didn’t want to say anymore and decided not to press her, yet.
“I know it’s… unusual,” he said instead, nodding toward her curly mop. “But I think it’s real pretty. Reminds me of my wife, when I first met her. If ya didn’t know better, ye’d have thought she was a boy. But ain’t no woman more a woman than she is.”
The girl-woman on the seat next to him turned pleading eyes his way, begging without the words for more details. He laughed, pleased to talk about his favorite subject.
“We were just kids then, of course,” he added. “Maybe a big younger than you, even. But she sure shocked the stuffing outa me, I must say. Once I knew, though, I couldn’t never see nothin’ but the beauty she was tryin’ ta hide from the world.
“She was real good at it, too. Why, this one time, a friend and I, we got in this fight at a saloon in Denver. We did that a lot. Well, she come in, took one look, and grabbed the nearest chair to smash over both our heads. Didn’t have no patience fer our shenanigans. But that started the whole place ta fightin’.” He laughed at the memory. “That chair she grabbed? This gent was seconds away from sittin’ in it. Instead, he set down hard on the sawdust floor, not ta mention all the stuff the sawdust was down there ta hide! Needless ta say, he weren’t right pleased. She walked out of there with a black eye. He had two … and a limp!
“She…. she went into a saloon?! And got into a fight?” she asked in amazed wonder.
“Oh yeah,” he nodded, smiling. “Like I said, she was just one of the boys. Leastwise ta the rest of ‘em. Most of the time, anyways. This one time--” he started to relate another story as she eagerly ate up every word.
The stories continued, one after the other, as the miles passed by outside the window, nearly unnoticed.
In Omaha, they got off the train to stretch their legs and get a bite to eat. He kept right on telling stories, even as the lady at the restaurant set the food in front of them and he dug in.
“I kin still remember her face the first time she ate his porridge. Looked like she’d swallowed an entire lemon, whole. Now, it weren’t the best thing in the world, but it sure was better then them biscuits had been the last trip,” he laughed, as he shoveled a bite of steak and potatoes into his mouth. “Wasn’t ‘til shortly ‘fore we got engaged, she finally ‘fessed up that she could cook. And boy, can she cook.” He paused and looked at the food in front of them. “This is good, but it don’t hold a candle ta hers.”
Some were happy, others sad. But all carried the same thread of love running through them. As the daylight faded to darkness, the stories continued.
“Anyway, she’s been real down, missin’ him since then,” he said tenderly. “So,” he straightened with a sigh and a slight smile, “when I saw that mare on the auction block in St. Louey, I knew I just had ta get her. It’s just the thing ta perk her up. If I kin only get her there in one piece.”
“Is she really as good with horses as you say?” she asked.
He nodded. “Better, really. The only one was better ‘n’ her was one of the boys we rode with, ‘fore he passed.” He turned to face her and the soft smile spread, reaching up to his clear blue eyes. “You’ve got her talent, ya know? A little work and ya could be a right fine trainer.”
“Next stop, Lincoln, Nebraska. Lincoln, Nebraska, is the next stop, ladies and gentleman.”
She straightened in her seat as the conductor walked past, shouting out his warning to the passengers. Excitement lit her eyes, with a small flame of trepidation at its depths.
He stood up and began to pull their bags off the rack above them.
She could see his own eagerness to be home and back with his beautiful wife soon. “What’s her name? You never said.”
“Louise,” he said, his mouth caressing each letter of the name.
“That’s a nice name,” she smiled.
“You never rightly said who yer family is hereabouts,” he commented, as he handed her carpetbag over. “Or how come ya didn’t know ‘bout them.”
She tucked the bag up against her chest and wrapped both arms around it possessively. Then she turned and stared out the window to watch as the train passed through the edges of town.
He’d almost given up on getting an answer when, just as the train started pulling into the station, she said, “I said I grew up on a farm. It was a typical childhood, until I wanted to get married. My parents warned me off him, I don’t know how many times. Until finally, we came home and said, ‘We’re engaged.’ Then….” she paused to swallow the knot that suddenly filled her throat, “they sat us down and explained why. I… I am… was… adopted. So’s he. And there’s a better than even chance he’s my brother. Half at least. He took off and I never saw him again. Guess he didn’t love me all that much after all.”
She waited for his explosion of disgust and/or pity. When nothing came, she finally gathered her courage to look his way and found only empathy shining in his bright blue eyes. It helped her finish her story. “The nuns… at the orphanage… that’s where I was adopted from. I went there to find out more about my past. They said they didn’t know anymore than what they’d told my…. parents, I guess.”
“They raised you and loved you like their own,” he said softly, resting a hand gently on her shoulder. “That makes them your parents in all the ways that matter.”
She nodded as soft tears tracked down her cheeks.
“Anyway, I stuck around, hoping to find out more. Last week, one day, they had me cleaning in the office. I knocked over some boxes with files. And there was one with my name on it. I couldn’t help myself. I read it.”
She turned tear blurred eyes his direction as the train chugged to a stop.
“My… my ma gave me up ‘cause… ‘cause she’d been vi… vi… violated. Said I’d be better off never knowin’ her.” She suddenly reached up and violently rubbed the tears leaking from her eyes out of existence as if denying the pain behind them. “According to the record, she’d come in with another woman, a former prostitute. They left both of us at the same time. The other baby, that had been my fiancé.
“And… there was one last surprise. She’d tried to come get me a few years later. Said her life was different, settled. She was married. Had a husband who knew everything and wanted me. But the nuns told her I’d already been adopted and wouldn’t tell her where I was. Well, once I knew… I had ta find her. Find out who she was, what she was like. Do you have any idea what it’s like growing up not knowing who you really are?!”
The train jerked to a stop as if in punctuation of her plea. At the sound of the train’s whistle she stood up, pushing past him into the aisle. Looking down she added, “The only thing she ever gave me was my name. I’ve sat here listening to you talk about the woman you love more than life itself and there’s nothing I’d like more than to be somebody’s Louise. To be loved half so much as you love her.”
“Who..,” he paused to clear his suddenly thick throat and changed his mind about what he wanted to say. “You never said who your family was around here. Maybe… maybe I can help you find them.” He looked up and met her gaze square on. “What’s your name, young lady?”
“Charlotte. Charlotte McCloud.”
Author's Note: This story was inspired by Reba McEntire's song, Somebody's Chelsea. Although, as often happens, the characters tore the story out of my hands and went a few totally unexpected directions. This was supposed to be a purely anonymous meeting, after Lou's died. Instead, she's still alive, Lou and Kid aren't that old... and then Charlotte went and told me who she was! My beta readers have asked me if there's a sequel planned. At this time, no. This was conceived as a one shot. But, if Charlotte, Lou and Kid gang up on me, who knows what will happen.